Thursday, March 19, 2009

Explaining the unexplainable

I was recently re-reading Chuck Klosterman's article, "The Lester Bangs of Video Games," and although the entire piece is brilliant, I think the single most important sentence in the piece is this one:
As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself.
My first reaction to this quote was, "But I do know what playing games feels like." However, as far as I know no critic, myself included, effectively communicates this in their pieces. Let me show you what I mean.

Here's a clip of two people playing a match of Super Smash Bros. Melee. Watch the whole thing if you like, but the part most relevant to what I'm going to talk about begins at 1:05.

If you're a regular Smash Bros. player, your reaction to the video will likely be vastly different from someone who has never played before or played only a little bit. If you're a regular player, you know why Marth falling through the level -- twice -- is out of the ordinary. You might even find it funny, as I sure did.

Now, try to communicate that to someone who has never played before. Before you can explain why it's funny, you would have to explain the basics of the game, how recovery works, who the characters are, what the stage is, and so on. You have to explain a lot. And after you've explained all that, the non-player still probably won't find the clip funny. We all know the old adage about how a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it.

And so we've reached the dilemma. As someone who's familiar with Smash Bros., I know what it feels like to experience something like what happens in that clip. I know how intense a well-played Smash Bros. match feels. I know the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and how hilarious it is when something completely unexpected happens, such as in the above clip. In fact, I'd argue that the random unexpected occurrences are what make Smash Bros. so great.

But if you're writing to someone who's never played the game before, how the hell are you supposed to communicate all of that effectively? Unless your audience is already familiar with at least some vital aspects of the game, I don't see how it's possible.

Fortunately, I think this will become easier as games become a more indelible part of popular culture. As more people play games, the more familiar they become with genres, tropes and common features. Most people already know who Mario is, and he appears in Super Smash Bros. Melee, so you wouldn't have to explain who he is if you were writing about that game. My hope is that, over time, you won't have to explain things like "platform" or "recovery" either, because they will be as identifiable as Mario.


  1. Is it necessary to explain what the game feels like to someone who hasn't played it? That might be an important function of a game reviewer, whose function is really to provide guidance to consumers as to how they should consume.

    But is that really the function of a critic? Partially, I suppose. But critique is also aimed at artists, right? Shakespeare criticism isn't very likely to influence the Bard's next work, but isn't part of the idea of literary criticism as a whole to influence the production of literature as well as to enhance people's ability to consume it? And so on for all the other types of artistic criticism.

    Consumers who haven't yet consumed Smash Bros. may not be able to appreciate how ridiculous 1:05 et seq. is (which is pretty hilarious), but consumers who have consumed it and other producers working in that area of videogame art ought to be able to, and both of those are legitimate audiences for a critic, aren't they?

  2. You're right: a writer (whether a critic or reviewer) has to consider the audience. What I'm most concerned with, though, is in reaching non-gamers. The problems associated with relating the video to them is what I was really driving at, and less the difference between critic and reviewer. I would hope that consumers would be able to get information about whether the game is good or not, as well as the game's larger meaning.

  3. That's fair enough. I come back to Shakespeare in my mind - the similarity for the critic (and the reviewer) being that in both cases it's difficult to convey what's so worthwhile about the work to someone who has basically no familiarity with it (which I assume is more or less what you mean by "non-gamer"). And in both cases, there's a dearth of familiarity with the conventions of the medium (e.g., you might have to explain blank verse, and Elizabethan English, in the same way that you might have to explain recovery, or platform).

    Two things suggest themselves to me from this analogy. The first is that, when the audience isn't familiar with the building blocks of the medium, it's helpful to focus on the universal. If you're reviewing a production of Shakespeare for people who don't understand Shakespeare, you might make your review accessible to non-Shakespeare aficionados by focusing on the plot, the emotions, the quality of the performances, the humor ... things that the audience is conversant with. If you're reviewing Smash Bros. for non-gamers, maybe you can do the same thing by talking about how funny the game is.

    The second thing that this analogy suggests to me is that sometimes the audience is simply unequipped to deal with it. Even if you take a reviewer's word for it that, say, somebody's production of Taming of the Shrew is hilarious, when you actually go to see the production you might not find it funny because you can't get past the technical obstacles to appreciating what your senses are assimilating. If you can't parse the Elizabethan English, you lose an important data channel for appreciating the humor. Similarly (in my opinion), I don't think you can really understand what makes Shakespeare so enduringly damn cool until you can appreciate the metric structure of his individual lines. There's no way a critic can get around these kinds of obstacles other than educating his audience - becoming a teacher, rather than a critic.

    In a similar sort of way, somebody could believe you that Smash Bros. is hilarious, then look at that video and not see anything funny at all, because they can't overcome the technical obstacle of parsing the back-and-forth of the fight. If they're really overwhelmed, they might not see Marth falling through the level as even vaguely incongruous. Somebody with that kind of obstacle isn't going to get it until someone points out the incongruity of high-level play on the one hand and the n00b-like mistake of twice falling to his death on the other.

    We've all had the experience of somebody explaining to us the nuances of a game in a concise, easily comprehensible way. I'm sure we've all also had the experience of trying to do that for someone else, probably with both success and failure. It occurs to me that if you can explain to somebody in a concise, easily comprehensible way why Marth's level of play up to 1:05 displays a high skill level, they're a lot likely to get the humor than if you can't. Again, it's like Shakespeare - a lot of people get turned off to it by lengthy, incomprehensible explanations in high school.

    So I wonder - maybe before videogame critics can develop a really robust toolkit for game [i]criticism[/i], they need to develop a robust toolkit for videogame [i]education[/i]?

  4. You raise a lot of good points, far too many for me to address directly here in the comments. I'll post a blog entry in response in the next few days.